Clues to Conservation
Fulbright Scholar and doctoral student Kate Cleary is studying bats in Costa Rica
in hopes of improving land-use policies
By Amanda Cairo
Studying bats up close and personal near pineapple plantations is University of Idaho doctoral student Kate Cleary’s idea of a slice of paradise. The fact that she's doing it in the lush countryside of Costa Rica makes that slice a whole pie.
“I feel privileged to have this time to live, work, learn and play in Costa Rica alongside the diverse group of scientists at CATIE [Centro Agronómico Tropical de Enseñanza y Investigación], my fellow IGERT [Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship] students and, of course, all the Costa Rican collaborators without whom none of this would be possible,” Cleary writes in an email.
The natural resources student was drawn to UI by the lure of working with her adviser, Lisette Waits, and the National Science Foundation’s IGERT program, which focuses on interdisciplinary training for scientists pursuing Ph.D.s. Now Cleary has received a 10-month Fulbright Scholarship that’s helping her complete her dissertation research on conservation in human-dominated tropical ecosystems in Costa Rica.
Cleary’s work focuses on nectivorous (nectar-eating) and frugivorous (fruit-eating) bats, which play an important role in tropical ecosystems as the primary pollinators and seed dispersers of hundreds of native plants.
While in Costa Rica, Cleary and her field assistant head out most evenings with 10 40-by-8-foot mist nets to place along animal trails or riverbeds. After they set up the long mesh nets, Cleary and her assistant spend four hours checking the nets for bats every 30 minutes. When they snare one, they gently remove it and place it in a cloth bag.
At the “base camp,” the researchers identify each bat’s species and record its age, sex and size. If the bat is one of Cleary's focal species, they take a small biopsy punch from its tail membrane. The sample will be stored for Cleary to analyze in the UI lab to determine how much the bats in each patch are related to each other. The more related the bats are, the more connectivity there must be between the patches.
“If we can protect connectivity between fragmented forest patches for these bat species, we will also protect connectivity for their mutualistic plants, and thereby improve the health of both animal and plant communities in these fragmented forest patches,” Cleary said. “Bats are amazing!”
Cleary’s dissertation focuses on how rapidly expanding pineapple plantations are affecting bat species and the bats’ ability to move among remnant habitat patches in an agro-ecological landscape. The goal? Cleary hopes local communities and land managers will better understand the consequences of plantation expansion and land-use changes on native flora and fauna and essential ecosystem services, like the ones that bats provide.
Through a unique joint doctoral program offered at U-Idaho, Cleary was able to get more mileage out of her academics and become a joint doctoral student at CATIE, a renowned research institute based in Costa Rica that works to develop sustainable agricultural and forestry practices in the New World tropics, or Neotropics.
Beyond her research, Cleary has found living and working in Costa Rica to be an incredible experience.
“Whether it’s giving me permission to work on their land, welcoming me into their homes for a shared meal of ‘gallo pinto’ [a traditional dish of rice and beans], stopping on a muddy back road to help me fix a flat tire, taking time out of their day to teach me the maze-like paths through the pineapple plantations or explaining to me very important local knowledge like where to get a nice cold beer on a hot day, Costa Ricans cheerfully help me overcome the everyday challenges of field work in the tropics, and I can’t thank them enough,” Cleary said.
Cleary earned one of 8,000 grants awarded this year through the Fulbright Program. The international educational exchange aims to increase mutual understanding between U.S. citizens and people of other countries. While Cleary’s hard work and research put her among the best, her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2007 to 2009 and her participation in the IGERT program elevated her and her passion for conservation to Fulbright status.
“In Guatemala, I learned that in dynamic, human-dominated landscapes, the most successful conservation projects are the ones that engage and involve local communities,” says Cleary. “The IGERT at U of I offered me the opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team of students and faculty to apply this lesson to a new tropical landscape.”